Two years ago, the Public Theater produced Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder, a small, tautly written, sharp-tongued, roughly ninety-minute four-character play about the big-money manipulations of a private equity firm. Skillfully directed by Thomas Kail with a classy cast, it had a brainy, cynical wit, a smart sense of how to ratchet up the dramatic tension as it proceeded, and an eerie fair-mindedness. None of the characters could fairly be called a total villain, but you certainly wouldn’t have called any of them a hero, either.
That was 2016. Now, the Public is presenting Burgess’s Kings, again skillfully directed by Kail, with a different but equally classy cast. This time, the subject is corporate capitalism’s interaction with politics, but the methodology is identical. Again there are four characters who, in ninety-odd minutes, go through an intensifying series of tautly written, sharp-tongued scenes that end by thoroughly shaking up their once-stable relationships. And again, with a sort of cynical caring, comes the persistent fair-mindedness, showing us that, while none is a total villain, none is all that much of a hero, either.
One can hardly disagree with Burgess’s view of the world she’s chosen to depict. Unless she were to write about hermits or monastics who raised all their own food and spun the fabric for their own clothes, she is stuck with people who, like the rest of us, are implicated in the money system — which makes the principal issue involved, from her point of view, how much good they can do while working within it, or how they come to grief from trying to stay outside of it. Indeed, the character in Kings whom most audiences will probably think is its hero — a first-term congresswoman, played with charismatic assurance and delicacy by Eisa Davis — suffers a deep grief by the end, when her honorable desire for a higher office has provoked a vicious social media assault on her family. But the congresswoman’s suffering does not tempt Burgess to let her, any more than the other three characters, off the moral-absolutist hook she wields. Everybody’s a compromiser, so everybody’s equally condemned and equally pardoned.
The trouble with this as an approach to playwriting is that it tends to convey, despite the fierceness with which Burgess can infuse a scene, an overall flattening effect. Her dialogue has a lively crackle; the astute psychological sense with which she shapes and builds each confrontation, working her quartet of characters through all the possible permutations, is thoroughly praiseworthy. And yet her plays never quite seem to catch fire dramatically. Some element of belief, some passion that goes beyond the awareness of all our everyday compromises, has been left out.
Burgess’s intended heroine, one eventually gathers, is not the strong-minded congresswoman, Sydney Millsaps, but Kate (Gillian Jacobs), an alert, ambitious young woman who works as a lobbyist for a clutch of medical organizations. Initially put off by Sydney’s uncongressional willingness to speak her mind, Kate finds herself increasingly attracted by the novice politician’s openness and honesty. Their bonding greatly amuses Kate’s more cynical friend, Lauren (Aya Cash), a finance manager for McDowell (Zach Grenier), the grandfatherly senior senator from Sydney’s state who, representing the same party, has taken the new congresswoman under his slightly patronizing wing, despite the policy disagreements between them that have already become evident.
As circumstances evolve, all four characters find their positions altering, so that the largely cerebral action sometimes seems as formal and choreographed as a minuet. Sydney ends up contesting Senator McDowell’s re-election bid and, in a tough primary fight, wins the nomination. Kate signs on as one of her key campaign officials, while Lauren deserts the now-retiring senator for a cushy lobbying post. Yet these new situations, like the previous ones, don’t last. An angry lobbyist spurned by Sydney unleashes a right-wing media blitz against her, with hurtful results, and she is defeated, leaving everyone except Kate in a new position, with new compromises to make. The now-jobless Kate, meantime, sits alone in a spotlight at the final fade-out, pondering whether political ideals are worth fighting for, or whether the system is so steeped in compromise and tainted by corporate money as to be beyond help.
Though extremely well-played by everyone under Kail’s sure-handed direction, this narrative feels like a truth with all its inconvenient complexities airbrushed out. Kate, as written, has no strong qualities that would justify putting her at the play’s center. She is simply a bright young woman asking good questions and expressing frank opinions, which is commendable — thanks to the likes of Emma González and her friends, I feel sure that America has thousands upon thousands of such women, ready to help us save democracy — but not arrestingly dramatic. Nor does the play convey anything about the basic problem that has led to our current political miseries: the Republican Party’s nationwide efforts to retain power through gerrymandering and voter suppression (to say nothing of Russian bots) while pursuing an agenda at odds not only with its constituents’ desires but with sanity and survival.
In Kings, the interaction of wealth and our elected representatives is still the old-fashioned matter of who scratches whose back in return for what. Burgess’s amusing subthread of plot about promoting podiatry to help stamp out the opioid epidemic is as close as the script gets to current reality — a far cry from such Republican phenomena as dismantling the State Department while playing nuclear chicken with North Korea, or destroying the EPA from within. Kings, like its predecessor Dry Powder, is diverting, but the political play we need right now would have to go beyond mere diversion to reach something quintessential.